Three Hundred Feet of Chuck Berry

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This started as my comment on yesterday’s post about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, referring to comments made by the readership, but it kinda grew.

—Before I took it out, yesterday’s post included a discussion of something I read many years ago about the Baseball Hall of Fame. No matter how scrupulously you vet your inductees, there is going to be a hierarchy. Give plaques to David Ortiz or Barry Larkin if you want, but if you’re going to do that, you’d better put up statues for Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Henry Aaron and such. Same thing at the RRHOF. Galleries devoted to the biggest stars are appropriate, but there should be a Statue-of-Liberty-sized Chuck Berry in front of the building.

—Similarly, as Len pointed out, the simple passage of time means that a hall of fame is going to be seen to “dilute” itself by the “you damn kids stay off my lawn” demographic. To a dude such as I, the Beatles and Henry Aaron are living presences by which all who came behind them are measured. But to our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations, they didn’t measure up to the likes of, say, Les Brown and His Band of Renown, or Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. That our children and grandchildren say the same about our heroes doesn’t make them wrong; it only means they’re living in a different time.

(I have a post in the can that discusses this idea further, which will go up next week.)

—I am sympathetic to Connor’s comment that the RRHOF’s name is part of its problem. “Rock and roll” conjures up a particular constellation of images, and it’s hard to square them with some of the inductees, especially those who came up in the 90s, when “rock and roll” as a concept was dying. But what other name could it have been given, back there in the 1980s? As soon as you call it the “Modern Music Hall of Fame” people will want to induct John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. And if you call it the “Pop Hall of Fame,” you couldn’t put Metallica in—but the Carpenters could finally make it.

—Connor also pointed out that country star Keith Urban claims to be influenced by John Mellencamp. That’s a surprise to me. There’s nothing in Urban’s music that resembles Mellencamp much at all, although he did do a pandering checklist song called “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” a couple of years ago. There’s also something to Connor’s suggestion that Mellencamp has some influence on modern country. Whether it’s enough to make him a Hall of Famer I doubt.

—Yesterday I reread Bill Wyman’s epic ranking of all of the acts in the Hall, which includes those inducted through 2018. It also functions as an excellent history of how the Hall came to be, and how inductees are selected. Favorite story: Jann Wenner supposedly deducted some votes that had come in for the Dave Clark Five and gave them to Grandmaster Flash instead so the Hall could induct a rap act. As Brian commented, inductees are chosen based on popular success, critical acclaim, and “coolness.” Wyman confirms this: certain acts had to wait because they were not considered cool enough for the room; others were inducted, seemingly, because they would sell tickets to the ceremony or bring eyeballs to the HBO special.

—I have said here before that inclusion in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry should be a much greater honor than it is perceived to be, bigger than either the RRHOF or the Grammys. The Registry’s goal is to highlight “the richness of the nation’s audio legacy” and “the importance of assuring the long-term preservation of that legacy.” It does not restrict itself to genres, having room for everything from rap music to news broadcasts. It does what the RRHOF, Country Music Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and other related halls purport to do. It is as small-d democratic as this nation used to aspire to be.

—There are people who will tell you that we shouldn’t have halls of fame at all, precisely because they are undemocratic, and contrary to the purpose of art besides. But that’s not the way we’re wired. “Who’s the best?” is a question that has obsessed us since two cavemen raced across the steppes in pursuit of the same stag while others watched, and disagreed over who would get it first. For that reason, halls of fame, and arguments about them, will always exist.

6 thoughts on “Three Hundred Feet of Chuck Berry

  1. TN

    As probably the only person here who actually knows Jann Wenner, I find it highly farfetched that he would intervene on behalf of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Not only does he have very little interest in hip-hop, but by all accounts, by the time we reached 2007, Wenner had pretty much absented himself from the selection process.

    Would he muck around with the voting process if he felt like doing so? Yes, I’ve seen him do exactly that with other processes. But he’s also very interested in the Hall of Fame’s legitimacy, and he really doesn’t care enough about most of the acts to screw around with the selections.

  2. I had never seen (was never aware of) Bill Wyman’s ranking until you posted this.

    What’s entertaining is that his bottom 12 are all arguably rock bands, apart from N.W.A. He doesn’t do the obvious and simply shove the ones that aren’t in any way rock and roll down there. And so, there are 12 acts he’d dump before ABBA. And then he continues his list of the unworthy with a Beatle (George Harrison).

    It’s still a great list and a great read even now that I’ve looked it up and learned that it’s not THAT Bill Wyman.

  3. Spinetingler

    “people will want to induct John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    Both of those have had a bit of influence on the modern rock world, too.

  4. Wesley

    I visited the RRHOF some 25 years ago and have no interest in returning, and not just because it’s in Cleveland. Already in the 1990s I could detect the sheer arbitrary nature of its inclusions and exclusions, and quite frankly its memorabilia didn’t impress me. I found it much more interesting touring Graceland and even the Liberace Museum. To me, the RRHOF is trying so hard to be so many things for so many people that it’s diluted whatever appeal it may have once had. And I don’t see any way to improve this situation

    I have a feeling that the younger generations won’t care that much about it either even if Drake, Adele and other top artists were inducted in one fell swoop. In fact, I think the concept of a physical Hall of Fame will seem outdated and unnecessary to most of them when you can find what you want about an artist online. I wouldn’t be surprised if most if not all go out of business and disappear this century.

    Let me put it to you this way: how many people under 50 can you find that want to go to Cooperstown, or know what HOF is in Cooperstown? The controversy about whether Barry Bonds gets in means absolutely nothing to them. And so likely is the controversy over this year’s RRHOF nominees, and next year’s, and next year’s …

  5. Scott Bennett

    To me, rock and roll is a large umbrella, and everything fits underneath. Rap, disco, metal, grunge, r&b. Ozzy said that when he writes a song, he tries to write a good Beetles song. Lemmy started out on Buddy Holly and Little Richard. Dave Grohl looks back on Andrew Gold’s Never Let Her Slip Away, of all things.

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